by Jim Brochu
If Ethel Merman had been the Pope, I would have become a priest. Growing up Catholic, an altar boy to our pastor Bishop Reilly, I was attracted to a life in the church, not so much because of the job description but because of the ritual. Each Sunday I would be part of the show - the High Mass - complete with it's rich and stirring music - chorus of a hundred - the drama of the gospel - the glow of the sanctuary lighting and especially the theatricality of the costumes. And when your pastor was a bishop, the costumes were Cecil Beaton-esque.
I had seen one Broadway show by accident when I was seven. Home from school one day and crazy about anything science fiction, I watched a talk show where Cyril Ritchard was talking about his new play, Visit To A Small Planet. Thinking it was about grotesque aliens and cool spaceships, I begged my father to take me. Dad was very impressed that his seven year old son wanted to see the latest Gore Vidal play and, thinking he had some kind of intellectual prodigy on his hands, took me to the oak and gold Booth Theatre on West 45th Street. Everyone was laughing but me.
Although it was fun to see Cyril Ritchard on stage (a joy I would appreciate later in other shows) I was tragically disappointed by the complete absence of atom-powered spaceships and green-blooded Martians. It was not a life changing experience. I was content to go home and be an altar boy (an occupation I once listed on my passport) and then study for the priest when I got older. Six years later, I saw Gypsy and chose another path.
My father was a Wall Street type, a bond trader with Allen and Company, who had wagonloads of connections in the theatre world. One of his closest friends was the company's accountant, a militantly avuncular man in his late seventies named Ed Zimmerman. Ed Zimmerman and his wife Agnes had a daughter named Ethel who loved to sing and eventually dropped the "Zim" from her name.
My father came home from work one evening and told me that his friend Ed had gotten us Ethel's house seats for the following Saturday matinee of Gypsy, September 21, 1959. A few days later, I was standing in front of the Broadway Theatre, the red marquee jutting out over the street with blue letters in white trim screaming, "Ethel Merman in Gypsy." It was early but people were already gathering and there was a sense of anticipation and excitement. We got our tickets at the box office and then walked around to the stage door on West 52nd Street to meet Ed Zimmerman. A few minutes later, a taxi pulled up and Ed got out. His daughter was with him.
Merman was wearing a blue summer dress, huge sunglasses, no make up and a yellow babushka protecting the rows of hair curlers. She flew by us, ignoring my father and me as she scurried up the alley and into the stage door. Although I wasn't sure who she was or what she did, she was so compelling that I didn't notice the elderly man behind me. Ed had a huge head of hair as white as hospital linen, coke bottle thick glasses and a chin so fatty that it draped like satin over his necktie. He told us that Ethel was late and said she would see us after the show.
We took our seats (E101-102) and Ed stood in the back. I was not prepared for what unfolded. As Baby June and Baby Louise sang and danced, I felt a freight train coming down the aisle, blowing its whistle and clanging its bells. Ethel was making her entrance and as she brushed passed me, I didn't know that the path of my life would change forever.
Within minutes she was belting out "Some People," then "Small World" with a young Jack Klugman; then Sandra Church emerged out of a strobe-lit vaudeville montage as the older Louise and then, the end of act one - Merman, in one, belting out "Everything's Coming Up Roses." My first religious experience.
Act two was electrifying with more Merman, the three strippers doing "Gimmick" and then the most amazing moment that I ever experienced up to that point in time - "Rose's Turn." I had never witnessed a single human being hold fifteen hundred others in the palm of her hand with sheer force of will.
The power of the audience applauding created a bridge of love so concrete that you could have walked across the footlights to grab her. She could have announced for President that day - and won. When they began taking their curtain calls I was shattered. Visit To A Small Planet was a three act play and I thought there was going to be more of Gypsy. I wanted it to go on and on.
Mr. Zimmerman met us in the back of the theatre, walked us around the corner and through the stage door. Wilbur the doorman knew him and smiled at us as if we were family.
"She's out on the stage," he said. The smell was intoxicating. I don't know what it is about the smell of a backstage but it's as sweet as incense winging its way to heaven.
Ed walked us though a series of steel fire doors and suddenly my dad and I were standing on the stage of the Broadway Theatre. The curtain was down and the only illumination came from a naked light bulb hanging from a cage high above us. Merman was stage center talking to someone I later found out was the stage manager. She was finishing her conversation when she turned and saw us. "Hiya Pop. Hiya, Pete," she said. "Is this the kid?"
Merman walked over to us, still in the lavender sleeveless dress I had just seen in the curtain call. She kissed my father on the cheek and turned to me. "You must be Jimmy. Jesus, you're big for thirteen."
I didn't know what to say but my father broke in telling her how great the show was. She turned back to me and said, "So what are you going to be when you grow up?" At that moment, the great curtain went up and the darkness of the Broadway Theatre unfolded before me - rows of yellow and blue seats, the large windows on either side of the stage without light - ushers turning the seats back up and janitors readying the house for the evening performance. It struck me that from the stage, the theatre looked like a church.
Whenever anyone had asked me what I was going to be I automatically said, "Priest." But now, as I looked out into the theatre, I looked back at Merman and said, "I'm going to do this."
She said, "That's nice. Gotta rest before the second show" and was gone.
(Jim Brochu is the author of the critically acclaimed musical The Last Session.)
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